LEWISTON — Last month, schools in 19 states placed orders for 1.25 million pounds of wild Maine blueberries.

That’s more than schools in eight states ordered in all of 2016, according to Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission.

Making inroads like that — in this case, working with a U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition program — are only going to help the industry, McBrady said Thursday during a Great Falls Forum speech at the Lewiston Public Library.

“I hope you’re all making smoothies,” McBrady joked with the audience.

Last year, 61 percent of all frozen fruit purchases were for smoothies, so that helps too, she said.

McBrady, a Lewiston native, came ready with a host of blueberry facts: 

* In 1980, Maine produced 20 million pounds of wild blueberries. In 2016, that was up to 107 million. Maine is the largest commercial producer of wild blueberries in the country.

* 99 percent of the crop gets frozen, most within 24 hours.

* 20 to 25 percent is exported.

* Maine has 500 growers and 44,000 acres in production, though only half of that is grown on each year, to rotate the land.

* 75 percent of the harvest is mechanized, she said. Workers only rake by hand areas that can’t be accessed with large tractors.

For all of its growth, McBrady said, the industry is facing “pretty dire times” right now.

“Our growers in Maine have seen a 60 percent decline in their prices in five years and that’s not going to be turning around this year,” she said. “We have too many berries. We have people going out of business. It’s extremely troubling.”

The “we” is all of North America, she said, which grows a combined 1.4 billion pounds of blueberries a year (1 billion high bush, 400 million wild).

“We’re swimming in blueberries,” she said. “Education of the the American consumer about the difference (between high bush and wild) and why wild is better is absolutely imperative.”

The new effort working with schools is one of the commission’s latest projects. Another is working with tourism officials to send thousands of wild blueberry recipe books to the three most-visited rest stops in the state.

McBrady, an attorney who used to practice environmental law, said she’s starting to see positive traction from the group’s efforts. She also said she’s glad she switched to this new job three years ago.

“Yesterday, I had one phone call having to do with trade and one call about judging a wild blueberry pie contest,” she said. “Both of which are important, and I never would have been able to do that wearing a suit, billing in six-minute increments.”

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Great Falls Forum speaker Nancy McBrady


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